By Senator Chris Murphy
January 9, 2016
Thirteen years ago, things started unraveling for Betsy and her then-15-year-old son, John. He was in and out of the hospital, often for weeks at a time, struggling with schizoaffective disorder. John was hospitalized 15 different times before he was 18. His family was told each and every time that there was nothing they could do for him, nowhere for him to go. Betsy, a Bloomfield resident, was at her breaking point — left on her own to fight for her son.
Without support and coordinated services, John became increasingly remote and psychotic until he was hospitalized again. But this time, instead of going home, John went to a shelter — the only place that he could go. It wasn’t long until he was kicked out, homeless and forced to survive on the streets.
John’s story, unlike so many others who struggle with serious mental illness, does have a happy ending. After hitting rock bottom — and only after hitting rock bottom — John eventually was given a bed at Connecticut Valley Hospital and got better. And for the past three years, John has been living successfully in Middletown.
But for those 10 years, the mental health system failed John and his family just as it fails millions of Americans every day. Our country wastes millions of dollars — mostly taxpayer money — on unsuccessful emergency room visits and hospital stays. The system is too fragmented and offers little hope for patients or their families. That needs to change.
In August, after holding dozens of meetings and public hearings across the state with individuals like John, family members like Betsy, and doctors and other health care providers, I teamed up with U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-Louisiana, to introduce the Mental Health Reform Act. Our bipartisan bill — the first of its kind in the Senate in decades — offers comprehensive reforms to our mental health system.
Here are a few glaring examples of just how broken our mental health system is — and how our bill would fix it. For John, despite showing signs of schizoaffective disorder at age 15, he didn’t receive effective treatment until 10 years later. Our bill supports evidence-based early intervention programs, such as Yale’s own Specialized Treatment Early in Psychosis, or STEP, program, which provides wrap-around services to an individual at the first episode of psychosis. Studies show the STEP program reduced hospitalizations by nearly 50 percent, with a dramatic decrease in the number of episodes later in life.
Even when patients do get diagnosed properly, current policies can also place unnecessary hurdles for doctors and individuals looking for care. For example, instead of incentivizing integrated care, many state Medicaid programs do not allow reimbursement for a patient’s physical treatment and mental health treatment on the same day. Doctors are forced to tell patients, who often need both services, to try coming back another day. Our bill breaks down these unnecessary barriers.
There also continues to be a glaring lack of research into ways to prevent and treat mental illness. Right now, for every dollar the federal government spends on medical research, only four cents is spent on mental health. Our bill reduces that unjustifiable disparity.
In government, mental health policy is, at times, totally uncoordinated. For instance, there are 112 separate federal programs that support individuals with serious mental illness siloed in eight federal agencies. Our bill would establish an assistant secretary for mental health and substance use disorders , so that we can better coordinate resources and prioritize the services that work.
I’ve heard countless stories just like John’s across the state, and it’s time to say: enough is enough. We haven’t passed comprehensive reform of our mental health system since President John F. Kennedy was in office, but if a progressive Democrat from the Northeast and a conservative Republican from the South can break the partisan gridlock in Washington to agree on a solution, we know we’re on the right track.
U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy is Connecticut’s junior U.S. Senator and a member of the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. He introduced the bipartisan Mental Health Reform Act with U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-Louisiana.